Pakistan, 2007

A major setback in the plans for my forthcoming trip was discovering that current Indian visa regulations prohibit a detour to visit my friends in Pakistan. Elisabeth and I first met on our Pakistan adventure in 2007 and have kept in touch with the surrogate family that we acquired there ever since. This language is not an exaggeration of the bonds that we formed, for the truth is that the political turmoil that attended our visit endangered our liberty and probably at times even our lives.

Looking back, I can hardly believe the sangfroid with which I composed the following report for our host, Saeed, upon our safe return. My 500 rupee camera had been stolen on the way out so I became, of necessity, Elisabeth’s photographic assistant throughout the entire trip: this worked remarkably well until I refused to help film a mongoose dispatching a snake. Nevertheless, she has kindly allowed me to reproduce a selection of our magnificent pictures here (excluding the poor snake) despite the difficulty of working out who actually photographed what.

Here is my original report:

Long having wanted to visit the home of the great Indus Valley Civilization, I discovered that no UK tour operator was offering suitable trips to Pakistan and made arrangements through the Travel Life Company of Rawalpindi for a specially commissioned tour. The company paired me up with one other like-minded lady traveler from the USA and, despite the tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto on the 27th December, our trip was a great success.

 The organizer, Mr. Saeed Khan (www.travellife.com.pk) took a great deal of care before we set off to ensure that we would be happy traveling together and that the itinerary met both our needs. He also offered suitable assurances and introductions so as to allay any fears as to our safety. However, none of this could have prepared us for the welcome on our arrival where we found ourselves treated as family members and even invited to spend Christmas day with an absolutely charming Christian couple.

 My traveling companion’s particular interest was in the exquisite, two thousand year old Buddhist Gandhara art, unique to the region around North West Pakistan and so we visited the principal sites of Taxila, Takht-i-Bahi and many of the finest museum collections. Our itinerary also encompassed the incomparable Sufi shrines of Multan from the early Islamic period, the mysterious necropolis of Chaukundi, Shar Jahan’s mosque at Thatta and the Mogul glories of Lahore. A worthwhile detour on one of our trips took us to the exquisite, thousand year old Hindu temple of Ketas with its lovely hilltop situation and tranquil sacred pool. In a striking contrast to the “golden triangle” of India, most of the places we visited were quiet enough to enjoy at leisure and unspoilt by mass tourism.

In contrast, my own interest was five thousand year old Harappan cities of the Indus Valley. The most important of which is Mohenjo-daro, close to the city of Lakana, the home of the Bhutto family. When political events and public disorder threatened to make it impossible to complete our trip, Saeed worked day and night to make my lifelong dream come true. He used his many contacts from the PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation) to adapt our itinerary and ensure that we had experienced and trustworthy guides wherever we went. Undoubtedly, Mohenjo-daro was the highlight of my trip. Only about 10% of the city has been excavated but even in those streets one can wander in the beautifully laid out temples, homes, workshops and bazaars and try to imagine life in this immense, apparently peaceful city which was thriving two and half thousand years before the glories of ancient Rome.

One of the best surprises of our trip was the food. Without exaggeration, this could have been a gastronomic tour, with some of the most delicious dishes I have ever tasted being served in unexpected roadside venues. Because so much of Pakistan retains its regional distinctiveness the variety of the dishes was a constant delight with the spiciness increasing as one travels south. However, since the food is freshly prepared for each customer, hotness can be adjusted to taste. Most meals are centered around one or two meat dishes and, while excellent vegetable dishes are available, they are unlikely to have been prepared with sufficient rigor to suit the most principled vegetarians. We chose to eat just one main meal a day. As eggs were usually offered for breakfast and there was plenty of delicious fresh fruit to supplement the diet, this worked very well for the digestion and I was untroubled by any gastric disorder throughout the whole trip. Although my companion was not quite so fortunate, her symptoms were not serious and she admitted that she may have accidentally taken a drink of tap water.

Alcohol is generally not available, however, there is no bar to bringing it through customs and a discrete bottle of “duty free” proved sufficient for a comfortable nightcap in our room while discussing the day’s activities. It had been our particular request that our accommodation be clean and safe without being luxurious as we were watching the budget carefully. All our hotels met these standards and some exceeded them, particularly when it came to the helpfulness of the staff when we requested such things as chai (tea), laundry, extra blankets or Internet access. Bearing in mind the fact that on this trip we did not visit any of the Northern Territories, where tourism is much more established, we felt that we were very well cared for. By far the greatest component of the cost of travel in Pakistan is transport and so it would be practicable (but by no means necessary) to increase the hotel standard if desired.

Colour is everywhere in Pakistan: the photographic opportunities are endless and lovely authentic handicrafts are available at bargain prices. This is the most wonderful country for cultural tourism; one of the few places in the world where it is possible to visit truly unique archaeological sites of the first magnitude without having to fight one’s way through the crowds. The current security situation is an uncomfortable one which will probably deter most travelers until after the elections, however, Pakistan should be high on any dedicated traveler’s list in anticipation of happier times to come.

Of course, those happier times were not as imminent as I so optimistically predicted and Pakistan (and our dear friends) will have to wait a little longer for the stability which will restore this country to its position as one of the cultural jewels of Asia. Excavations of the earliest planned cities in the world only just survived the dreadful floods of 2010 and brutal bombings have scarred many of their more modern counterparts. I still long to travel North on the Karakorum Highway from Rawalpindi to the mountainous regions of Gilgit and the Hunza Valley: to visit remote gem mines and meet the mysterious Kalesh peoples, to feel the breath of the killer mountain, Nanga Parbat and not to blink and miss my only chance of seeing a snow leopard. Inshallah.

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